Ears on the SRC: June 21, 2018


by Diane Payne

 1:00 PM Action Meeting:  Charters

 Present for Final SRC Meeting

How fitting that the SRC ended on the Summer Solstice, which many cultures celebrate with festivals and rituals. Philadelphians now celebrate the sunset of the SRC.  This state-imposed governance operated outside the democratic system with little interference from elected officials or objections from the media.  But we as Philadelphians must insure that the incoming appointed school board remains transparent and accountable to the public. Full democratic voice will not be restored until disenfranchisement ends and Philadelphians vote for its school board–just as all other 499 school districts in Pennsylvania do.

 A special meeting of the SRC was held at 1:00 p.m. to consider and vote on charter school issues and the regular Action Meeting was held at the normal time of 4:30 p.m.  All four SRC Commissioners were present for both meetings.  Seven members of APPS were present; four members testified on behalf of public education at the 1:00 p.m. meeting.  Nine members of APPS were present and five APPS members spoke in defense of public education at the 4:30 p.m. meeting.  (The SRC will reconvene next Thursday, June 28th,  only to approve the minutes for the official record.)

 There was a large and vocal group of parents from Mayfair Elementary demanding safe conditions for their kindergarten and first grade students, along with another vocal and persistent contingent from Strawberry Mansion High School (SMHS) fighting for their school’s survival. (Details about both struggles follow.)

 Charter School Onslaught

The SRC voted on a total of 17 charter school resolutions that addressed amendments or renewals. The resolutions contained no text, so the public had no way to know the facts on the charters.  In addition, none of the conditions the SRC included in the renewals were released to the public. All renewals are for 5 years unless otherwise noted:

 SRC-1: Charter Amendment for KIPP West Philadelphia C.S. to move locations. Unanimous approval by SRC.

SRC-2: Charter Amendment for Marianna Bracetti Academy C.S. to increase enrollment by 100 students. Unanimous approval.

SRC-3: Charter Amendment for Southwest Leadership Academy C.S. to change locations . Unanimous approval.

SRC-4: Charter Non-renewal for Architecture and Design C.S. (CHAD). Vote for non-renewal passed with three Yes votes; Commissioner Green cast the sole No vote.

SRC-5: Charter Renewal for Discovery C.S. Unanimous approval for renewal with “conditions”.

SRC-6: Charter Renewal for Imhotep Institute C.S. Unanimous approval for renewal for ONE YEAR  “with conditions”.

SRC-7: Charter Renewal for KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory C.S. Unanimous approval for renewal “with conditions”.

SRC-8: Charter Renewal for Maritime Academy C.S. Unanimous approval for renewal “with conditions”.

SRC-9: Charter Renewal for MaST. Unanimous approval for renewal “with conditions”.

SRC-10: Charter Renewal for Memphis Street Academy C.S. (Renaissance charter) . Unanimous approval for renewal “with conditions”. Note: this vote was postponed since April 2016 when the Charter Schools Office recommended Non-renewal. Although the school showed little improvement, SRC voted for 5 more years.

SRC-11: Charter Renewal for Universal Alcorn C.S. (Renaissance charter). Unanimous approval for renewal “with conditions”.

SRC-12: Charter Renewal for Universal Institute C.S. Unanimous approval for renewal “with conditions”.

SRC-13: Charter Renewal for Universal Vare C.S. (Renaissance charter). Unanimous approval for renewal “with conditions”. Note: SRC postponed vote from April 2017 after CSO recommended Non-renewal. SRC voted for 5  more years despite no evidence of improvement.

SRC-14: Charter Renewal for Young Scholars C.S. Unanimous approval for renewal “with conditions”.

SRC-15: Grant new charter for Deep Roots C.S. Approved 3-1; Commissioner Neff voted No.

SRC-16: Grant new charter for KIPP North Philadelphia C.S. Approved 3-1; Neff voted No.

SRC-17: Grant Charter for Mastery Prep C.S. (the former Gillespie Middle School). Approved 3-1; Neff voted No.

 Even though Resolution SRC-4 was a vote not to renew the CHAD charter, it is only the beginning of the public process.  There will be public hearings in front of a hearing officer and opportunity for public comment before any actual revocation occurs.  This begins a lengthy, time consuming, and expensive process to decide the final outcome of a charter operator that is failing.  Even after this process, the charter operator has the right to appeal to the state level and further delay an outcome.  Charter Schools Office Director DawnLynn Kacer noted that it could be a two to three year process.  On the other hand, public schools placed on the chopping block have no recourse once it is on the chopping block– just look to Wister Elementary for proof.

 The SRC, claiming quasi-judicial exemption, once again failed to adhere to the stipulations of the Sunshine Act by providingnotext for the resolutions, only titles.  They then voted on these title only resolutions deliberately withholding information from public view until almost a week after the meeting when the full text of the resolution appeared on the district website.  APPS expects the new  School Board to follow both the letter and the spirit of the PA Sunshine Act which protects the public’s right to know what our public officials are voting on and to allow and encourage  public engagement on matters of public concern.  You can view the district’s text of these resolutions (posted AFTER the meeting). You can view the staff presentation by the Charter School Officer (CSO) here.

 There are 71 pages of text dealing with these 17 resolutions.  Every renewal and charter grant includes numerous conditions which begs the question: are these operators adequately submitting documentation and do they engage in practices that satisfies the charter school law? (Even considering that Pennsylvania has one of the worst charter school laws in the nation.)  Charter schools sell themselves as the savior of failing public schools.  They purport to operate more efficiently and educate better than their public school counterparts.  Yet the evidence on the performance frameworks which can be accessed on the district website for each and every school fails to show stellar results in the majority of charter schools.  They suck the taxpayer dollars into a huge black hole further crippling existing public schools.  When will the citizens and politicians of this state acknowledge that this is an excessively expensive failed experiment which has undermined and harmed a public institution that serves the common good?  Probably not until the “follow the money” trail is exposed.

 Resolutions SRC-1 (KIPP West Philadelphia C.S.) and SRC-3 (Southwest Leadership Academy) were both amendments for location change.  Public schools are anchors in their community.  Charter schools change locations without consideration of building community stability because the reform model relies on disruption not stability. APPS members asked why a community is not notified or consulted before the SRC gives the OK for a charter to move into that community.

 SRC-4 (Architecture and Design C.H.S. , also known as CHAD) was the sole resolution for Non-renewal.  This school received a “Does Not Meet Standards” designation  in all three categories–Academic, Organizational, and Financial.  It was alarming that the school has steadily declined academically in each year of its charter.  Nonetheless, a vocal school contingent came to fight to keep their school open despite its startling failures.  The Inquirer reported that the school’s administration had hired a consultant to organize opposition to non-renewal.

 SRC-11 (Universal Alcorn), SRC-12 (Universal Institute), and SRC-13 (Universal Vare) are all part of the Universal portfolio of 7 schools run by music mogul Kenny Gamble, who, like many charter founders, has no education experience or training. All seven of these schools have been plagued with questionable financial practices.  In all seven schools, there are 21 Academic, Organizational, and Financial subcategories which all schools are rated on by the Charter School Office (CSO).  Only TWO categories out of all possible 21 received a “Meets Standards.”

 Even more disturbing, both Universal Alcorn and Universal Vare were given to Universal as part of the Renaissance program. Universal assured the SRC and the public that it would dramatically improve outcomes.  The fact that that never happened doesn’t mean Kenny Gamble and Universal have to give up control of the schools. Vare was recommended for Non-renewal in 2016 with a rating of “Does Not Meet Standards” in both the academic and financial categories and Approaches Standards in the Organizational category.  Vare was allowed to languish without a vote for two years, resulting in a de-facto renewal until this date when a renewal was recommended with 38 conditions.  This hardly constitutes dramatic improvement of outcomes this constitutes abuse of taxpayer funds.

 The Mastery chain of 14 schools, including 9 Renaissance charters, also fails to deliver any outstanding or dramatic improvements.  Instead, now that Mastery has a mini-district within the SDP, it cries foul when asked to deliver outcomes that show they are worth the taxpayer money funneled into their coffers.  Mastery schools also languish in a non-renewal state yet SRC-17 (Mastery Prep) is being recommended a charter grant to continue the mediocre performance and drain on taxpayer funds.

 4:30 p.m. Action Meeting

 Dr. Hite, in his opening remarks, informed the audience that a rigorous summer schedule was in place to insure  safe, welcoming schools for students and staff.  Twenty-six schools were chosen for various improvements: construction, lead paint removal, HVAC repairs, and asbestos abatement.  Dr. Hite did not name the schools or explain how they were chosen.

 Mayfair Elementary Parents Want Answers

Dr. Hite also addressed the growing community unrest around the relocation of Kindergarten and first-grade students from Mayfair Elementary School to Austin Meehan Middle School.  Mayfair has been struggling with an escalating overcrowding problem for many years. The district has watched from the sidelines as many Northeast schools, including Mayfair, have exceeded maximum enrollments.  In another example of talking about parent engagement while failing to actually engage in it, there was NO dialogue with the school community until AFTER the district made its decision.  The district then informed the Mayfair community of its decision to renovate a portion of the Meehan Middle school to accommodate the young students. The students will be bused from Mayfair to Meehan.

 After seeing photos of the space to be used, parents were alarmed that renovations would not be completed in an safe manner for their children since it appeared that lead, asbestos, HVAC, and mold were all in need of repair and/or abatement.  Not to mention concerns about young children in a middle school building positioned adjacent to Lincoln High School.  Community members brought their concerns to City Councilman Bobby Henon, who also had no prior notice of the district’s intent.

 Councilman Henon accompanied a large group of Mayfair parents, many immigrant families, to testify and to ask Dr. Hite to address their concerns.  The Mayfair community had been told that a modular solution was not on the table, yet resolution SRC-48 alluded to a plan  to provide modular space to nearby Solis-Cohen.  Understandably, parents wanted to know why their request for this solution was not considered while a neighboring school was to have that very solution offered to them.  The parents also questioned the wisdom of spending resources to improve this controversial space when Meehan is scheduled to be demolished in two years.

 Hite failed to explain why a modular solution was available to Solis-Cohen but not Mayfair. It remains unclear what will happen when school begins only a month away.

 At the end of the public speakers, Commissioner Green questioned the Mayfair/Meehan plan.  He noted that he didn’t remember voting on a capital budget resolution for this conversion. District Chief Operating Officer Danielle Floyd was called to the table to answer questions.  Floyd testified that there was no such vote because all work was being done by district staff.  When Green asked how much it would cost, Floyd listed the following expenses: $116,000 for materials, $340,000 of district staff overtime, $31,000 to move furniture, and $159,000 for new furniture for a total renovation fee of $646,000.  So, for $646,000 will the youngest of our students be entering an environment that is safe and free of asbestos, lead, mold and with functioning HVAC systems? Would Dr. Hite, or any member of the SRC, want their young children or grandchildren in that environment?

 Community Continues Fight to Keep Strawberry Mansion High Open

In another display of the district’s lack of parent and community engagement and district doublespeak, the bulldozing forward by the administration on plans to close SMHS are undeterred.  But community members fighting for their school are also undeterred.  Five members of the community spoke in defense of their neighborhood school, including the former principal; they vowed to not back down. Hite’s plans to keep the school open for vendors bringing in unproven programs; that does not equate to a neighborhood comprehensive high school.  Our schools are anchors in our communities.  The Hite administration has little respect for continuity, stability, and community wishes.  SMHS was starved of resources.  Feeder schools became charter schools, but Hite fails to acknowledge the conditions leading to diminished enrollment.   Hite’s plan to not open a 9th grade at Mansion is a  thinly veiled distraction.  SMHS is closing as a neighborhood high school.  What will be in store for the building is yet to be established.

 Passage of Resolution A-19 approved reorganization for four schools, including “truncating” the grade structure at Mansion.  Commissioner Neff proposed separating SMHS out of this group to make it a separate resolution, which the Commissioners voted on and approved. Mansion became resolution A-19B.  Hite addressed his version of what the district is doing regarding “planning” (forgetting that Deputy Superintendent Eric Becoats already told the Mansion community that the change was already in the “implementation stage”). He called Chief of Schools Shawn Bird to the table to supply additional information. Nothing Hite nor Bird said explained how SMHS would remain a comprehensive neighborhood high school, hence the doublespeak.  As members of the Mansion group shouted out when false statements were being made to the SRC, Hite angrily shouted back to the audience members “I had to listen to you.”  Telling.

 Before the vote, Commissioner Neff spoke about her “deep concerns”  with this plan.  She noted that eliminating the ninth grade would further decrease the school population.  She pointed out that as early as last year the district knew it wanted to make changes at Mansion but failed to engage in any community dialogue until this March. She said this plan does not take into account 9th graders transferring into Mansion when they are not successful in other school environments including charters like Mastery Gratz. Neff voiced concern over this vulnerable population and questioned whether they would fall through the cracks. She asked how those students could be tracked to see what happens to them.  Finally, she stated that she just failed to understand how truncating a grade helps in planning.

 When it was time to vote, Commissioners Green and Burns voted yes and Commissioner Neff voted no.  Commissioner Richman paused in uncertainty, had sidebar conversations with Hite, again paused, had an additional sidebar conversation with Hite and finally joined Green and Burns to vote yes.  The resolution passed 3 to 1, thus eliminating the 9th grade for next year. As the commissioners were voting, an audience member was shouting to leave this for the new school board to decide. Why wouldn’t the Commissioners yield a controversial decision to the incoming board?

 It is the duty of the governing body to do its homework, research, publicly debate, and vet the many resolutions that come before them.  The governing board should not be a rubber stamp to any superintendent’s vision.  Superintendents come and go.  We the stakeholders should have a say in a vision for our schools because we are here to stay.

 Procurement Complaints

Speaker # 26 , Mark Steinberg, represented Imperial Dade Bag and Paper Company.  Who knew that that Bag and  Paper company speaker would be so controversial? Steinberg vehemently complained about the district failing to follow its own procurement policies which resulted in his company losing a contract.  On June 28th, an article appeared in the Public School Notebook by Greg Windle, exposing exactly with this speaker was complaining about.  “…the District is preparing to argue that it has no obligation to follow state law or enter into competitive bidding when it awards contracts for professional services, despite promising to do so in its procedures sent to bidders.”   Oh SDP, it is really tiresome when you feel rules, procedures, and accountablity applies to everyone but you.

 Block Voting and Mega Spending

101 resolutions were voted on in 4 blocks.  The SRC spent a total of $133,536,478 at this meeting.  The total money accepted in grants and donations was $5,576,338.

The new School Board will be meeting the third Thursday of month, just as the SRC did, but the meeting time is moved back to 5:00 p.m.  You still call the Office of Family and Community Engagement by 4:30 on the day preceding the meeting to register to speak at a School Board Meeting.  The number is 215-400-4180.